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Why High School Reunions Are Good For You, Really

Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page says if old wounds are holding you back from going to your high school reunion, you're missing out. (iStockphoto.com)

For many adults, high school is a time they would rather not revisit. Some remember their adolescent years as traumatic and cringe at the prospect of seeing their peers ever again. So when a high school reunion rolls around, people come up with all kinds of excuses for not attending.

In his Chicago Tribune column, Clarence Page admits that it took him two decades to work up the courage to attend his class reunion — but he tells NPR's Neal Conan that he's glad he finally did it.

"The thing about reunions," Page says, "[is] you can clear a lot of the air with them."

Old humiliations keep too many people away from their reunions, he says. But if you find the courage to go, you might be surprised to hear some very heartfelt mea culpas from old nemeses.

"It's amazing how many apologies I heard," says Page. "One fellow came over — a white classmate — out of the blue, and apologized for being so racist 40 years ago."

On a lighter note, Page says he was also approached by two female classmates who wanted to apologize for bullying him whenever the teacher wasn't looking.

"Of course, I had totally forgotten this," he says. "Your parents are right when they say time heals all wounds, and wounds all heels ... The person who's the big shot now, or the cool girl ... 40 years later, it's Archie and Edith Bunker."

Of course, Page says, when it comes to angst-ridden teenagers, those platitudes often fall on deaf ears.

"This is why I think the [20-year] reunion is so important. Because by then, you've had kids of your own," Page says, "and you start to see how high school is always ridiculous, regardless of what generation happens to confront it."

If you do decide to go to your high school reunion, Page has one piece of advice: Never ask an old classmate if they remember you.

"First of all, if the other person does remember you, you don't need to ask because they're going to make it quite apparent," Page says. "If they don't remember you, then they are busily — with a big grin on their face — trying to talk their way around the fact that they don't."

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Transcript

NEAL CONAN, host: High school was such a trauma that many cringe at the prospect of seeing those bullies, brats and clowns ever again. In his column today, Clarence Page admits it took some of us 20 years to work up enough nerve to show up at a class reunion. Now, he argues reunions have a therapeutic value. Still, he says there is one question never to ask at these affairs. If you'd like to nominate your most awkward high school reunion question, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Clarence Page's syndicated column originates in the Chicago Tribune. He joins us here in Studio 3A. Clarence, nice to have you back.

CLARENCE PAGE: Thank you. Always glad to be here.

CONAN: And what's the question that you say you should never ask?

PAGE: Do you remember me?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAGE: You know, I mean, it's one of those questions that, first of all, if the other person does remember you, you don't need to ask, because they're going to make it quite apparent. If they don't remember you, then they are busily, with a big grin on their face, trying to talk their way around the fact that they don't remember you. They try to act like, oh, hey, how are you doing? How've you been?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: That's right. Weren't you in Mr. Smith's English class?

PAGE: Yeah. Right, right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: So, yeah. It never works out well.

PAGE: You know, my memory is terrible for what happened last week. So when somebody you know asks me that, and, you know, at one point in the evening, I ran out of euphemisms and finally said, well, no.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAGE: She was so crushed, bless her heart, you know? And there's another guy who I didn't remember simply because I didn't recognize him. You know, we go through changes after 40 years. But I'd said to him, you know, what really you - well, he was a former football star, and he was rather crushed because he was such a big shot back then. You know that kind of thing is, you know?

CONAN: Sure yeah.

PAGE: Your parents are right, you know, when they say don't worry, time heals all wounds and wounds all heels. There's justice in time.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAGE: You know, the person who's the big shot now or the cool girl in the best clique. You know, 40 years later, it's Archie and Edith Bunker or whatever, you know? So...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: There's high school karma.

PAGE: Yeah. And then, there are the nerds, you know, the Bill Gateses who become multibillionaires and all and drive up in one of their several Jaguars. So...

CONAN: But what finally convinced you to, well, get over the - get over those jitters after seeing all those people many years ago and saying...

PAGE: Time, Neal, time...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAGE: The sands of time.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Some of us have had a little bit more of that than many of our listeners perhaps.

PAGE: Well, yeah, you know, this was my 45th anniversary reunion. I'm a proud member of the class of '65. We're a year late only because, you know, so many of us didn't want to take on the responsibility of actually organizing the darn thing. There's a lot of work to put together a reunion. And my hat is off to the committee members who did this. But we started thinking about how many of our class members aren't with us anymore. And, you know, it - that's rather a sobering thing, especially just in the last few years.

Last year, the reunion for the - excuse me - the year before last, the reunion for the class of '64. They rung a bell, read off the names of all of the deceased members of their class. And it's a very sobering thing. And, you know, I said, we ought to get together again just while we got each other around to look at each other. And it turned out the thing caught fire, really. One of the - well, there was an old garage band, The Intruders, that was classmates of ours, for a couple of years very popular.

CONAN: Didn't everybody have a high school band called The Intruders?

PAGE: Of course, they did. You know, it looks like every town has got a saloon called The Blue Note.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAGE: But, yeah, The Intruders got together again after 45 years, reunited after their careers as, you know, electricians or CPAs, whatever, and practiced for about six weeks. And we partied like it's 1965.

CONAN: Practice - how long does it take to remember the three chords to "Hang on Sloopy"?

PAGE: I have no idea, Neal.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAGE: I'm not a musician.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAGE: We danced with a lot of soul there.

CONAN: I bet there was.

PAGE: Remember "Animal House." You just think "Animal House," "Louie, Louie," you know?

CONAN: So this is a toga party? Yeah. OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: We've asked listeners to email and call us with the most awkward question you should not ask at your high school reunion. This from Corey in Philadelphia. When did you lose all that weight you used to carry?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAGE: Oh, that's a good one. No one asked me that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAGE: They would have to ask when - where did you gain all that weight you have now?

CONAN: Let's get a caller in. This is Jolinda(ph), Jolinda with us from Bathship(ph) in Ohio.

JOLINDA: It's Bath Township, but that's close.

CONAN: OK.

JOLINDA: We're used to that. I have a couple, actually. This would be a continuing conversation. Oh, Suzie, it's so good to see you again. You look so great. Who is your plastic surgeon?

PAGE: Oh yeah.

JOLINDA: And by the way, you know, I could have told you that your marriage to Randolph would not last. You're much too good for him. By the way, do you have his phone number?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAGE: You've been thinking about this for a while, haven't you?

JOLINDA: Well, actually, I've been married for 40 years, very happily, but I do know people...

PAGE: Good.

JOLINDA: who would identify with this very much.

PAGE: Oh, yeah.

Well, me too. I admit it, Neal, this is so much more fun to write about than the debt ceiling.

CONAN: Really?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: I mean...

JOLINDA: You're absolutely right.

PAGE: ...you know, you do a debt ceiling piece, you get the usual grouches. But for this, I've had so many great emails and Facebook notes...

CONAN: Such as?

PAGE: Oh, I wish I had brought some with me. But, well, one fellow - I'll never forget. This was a little while ago - wrote to me about how his 88-year-old mother drove 150 miles to her latest class reunion...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAGE: ...and she was perturbed that the rest of the class hasn't stayed in as good a shape as she had. I heard from folks talking about how they, too - well, some who would not go back to their class reunion if you paid them: I didn't like those folks then, I don't like them now. But, you know, I think they're young, Neal, because

CONAN: They'll get over it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAGE: Yeah, I think they will.

CONAN: Jolinda, do you go to your class reunion?

JOLINDA: You know, we haven't had one for a long time. I'm looking forward to it. I - Clarence, I graduated in '68.

PAGE: All right.

JOLINDA: You've got to - I'm a child compared to you. Ahem. Anyway - but I'm looking forward to it.

PAGE: Yes, indeed.

JOLINDA: I really am. We have some - just the other day, I bumped into a woman at the grocery store and she had a cute little baby. And I introduced myself and said, oh, what a cute baby. We started chatting and it turned out that that's the grandchild of my former - one of my friends I hung around with. And I thought, oh, my goodness. She certainly did get old fast.

But anyway...

PAGE: They do.

JOLINDA: ...I'm expecting my first grandchild, too, so - but mine is not here yet, so anyway...

CONAN: Congratulations on the grandchild, or the forthcoming grandchild, and good luck at your reunion whenever it happens.

JOLINDA: Yeah, whenever it happens. Thanks so much.

CONAN: Email from Jeff(ph) in Moses Lake, Washington. In response, not - to what not to ask at your reunion, I think the following would be tempting but sadly inappropriate: So how did your narcissistic ability to garner attention at others' expense help you through this economic downturn?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAGE: Always keep a sunny side up.

CONAN: Yeah. Absolutely. And don't remember about those slights in the past.

PAGE: Well, so true, yes. You know, this is the thing. It's amazing what - well, one thing that's interesting, too, about the 40th anniversary reunion was how many apologies I heard. This was interesting, that people came - well, one fellow came over, you know, a white classmate, came over out of the blue, apologized for being so racist 40 years ago - 45 years ago. And to tell you the truth, I didn't remember how racist he was, but he remembered, you know, and...

CONAN: That's interesting.

PAGE: ...he didn't need to apologize to me. He needed to apologize for himself, really. You know, it's sort of like a cleansing thing.

CONAN: Might want to take out an ad.

PAGE: Well, thank you. You know, on a lighter note, two female classmates came over to apologize for punching me in the arm and beating me on the back relentlessly years ago when the teacher wasn't looking. I, of course, had totally forgotten this, but they both say it's because they both had crushes on me, didn't know how else to approach me.

CONAN: That's really an interesting way to express affection.

PAGE: I want to tell you, all I could say was: Now you tell me...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAGE: ...you know? What about all those Friday nights when I didn't have a date, you know, and thinking, like with typical teenage angst that nobody loved me at all, you know? But this is the other thing about reunions, you can clear a lot of the air with them.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to Sherry(ph), Sherry calling us from Nashville.

SHERRY: Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

SHERRY: Great. My - I asked a really stupid question at our - I think it was our 10-year class reunion. A group of us were in a circle, all the girls that used to go to school together talking about our husbands, our last names. And I looked at a girl, after all of us had gone around, and I said, oh, what's your last name now? And she was like, oh, it's still Northcutt(ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHERRY: So, I mean, you know, just totally making her feel out of place.

CONAN: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Yeah, that's...

SHERRY: (Unintelligible) me up really fast.

CONAN: How about another glass of punch?

SHERRY: Yes, quickly.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Thanks, Sherry.

SHERRY: Thank you.

CONAN: This email is from Evan in Portland. It's along the same lines. Are you married?

PAGE: Ah, yes, there's a good one.

CONAN: And this one is from...

PAGE: Or why aren't you married? How about that?

CONAN: Or why aren't you married? Yeah. I don't see a ring there. Yeah.

PAGE: Yeah.

CONAN: From C. Brownie(ph): I would be careful not to expect people to be the same as they were in high school. I think most people make themselves after high school. I don't expect people to be the same, and you'd be surprised to see how people grow and change. Along these lines, don't ask about the greatest high school moment. Who wants to be defined as the prom king as an adult? Life goes on after all.

PAGE: Well, it should indeed, and people do think of their moments of glory. There have been so many great plays, Neal, written about people who had their great moment of glory in high school. I remember...

CONAN: Bruce Springsteen, "Glory Days."

PAGE: Yeah. You know, it's a - because it is a fact of life. And I think it's a sobering thing, but the funny thing is that our parents tried to tell us this. You know, when you're really feeling down in the dumps with teenage angst your parents would try to tell you, hey, this, too, shall pass. You know, 10, 20 years from now, you're going to be laughing at this, and you're going to be way over here, those other kids are going to be way over there. Of course, you don't hear them at all, you know.

The, you know, the adolescent brain tunes that out entirely. But later, especially - I think this is why the 20th year reunion is so important because by then you've had kids of your own and teenage kids of your own, and you start to see how high school is always ridiculous regardless of what generation happens to confront it. But, you know, the kids can't understand that until they've been through it themselves.

CONAN: In his syndicated column today in the Chicago Tribune titled "Why Class Reunions Matter So Much," Clarence Page quoted the great editor and columnist, the late Meg Greenfield, who wrote in her memoir, so far, I have been able to discover nobody, regardless of situation, gets over high school.

PAGE: Amen.

CONAN: Clarence Page is our guest. Tell us the most awkward question you've gotten at your high school reunion, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

And let's get Chip on the line, Chip with us from San Antonio.

CHIP: Hi. The worst thing I ever heard at a high school reunion was at a 30th-year reunion when a girl said to a boy, you and I have some unfinished business. And I'd also like to apologize for - to Karen(ph) for 7th grade Texas history class.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CHIP: Thank you very much and have a good afternoon.

CONAN: OK. Well, he may have unfinished business...

PAGE: Your...

CONAN: ...well, he solved his unfinished business with Karen. But anyway...

PAGE: ...your program is therapeutic too. See?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAGE: The cleansing hour. Let's change the name here.

CONAN: Yeah.

PAGE: Unfinished - but, no, that's something, you know...

CONAN: Boy, that's a grenade. That's not a question.

PAGE: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.

CONAN: Here's Ellen in North Carolina writes: At my 50th reunion, I was greeted with what was your SAT score? I can't even remember my son's scores much less my own.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: And this is from Conrad in Reno. Not only bad at high school reunion, but just about anytime: When are you due?

PAGE: What do you do?

CONAN: No. When are you due?

PAGE: Oh, when are you due?

CONAN: Yeah.

PAGE: Oh, oh, goodness. That is the great faux pas of the - what, a falsely anticipated pregnancy or whatever there, yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAGE: Hmm. You have my sympathies.

CONAN: Sandy(ph) is on the line from Mills in Wyoming.

SANDY: Yes. I want to congratulate your guest for his courage in going to his class reunion. I didn't go to my 50th this summer. I had health issues, which were probably brought on by thinking of going to the class reunion. But my question not to ask would be: Is that all your - are those all your real teeth?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAGE: That's a - I'll put that on the list definitely. It's very good.

CONAN: Would you like to borrow my Polident? Yeah.

PAGE: It's great.

SANDY: Yeah. Or is that a toupee that you're wearing?

CONAN: A nice toupee, yeah, that's another good one.

SANDY: Is that your real hair?

CONAN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Sandy, have you gone through the torture yourself?

SANDY: No, I haven't gone to any of my class reunions. And as I've said before, I was thinking about going to my 50th, but I suddenly became really ill thinking about going to it and I didn't go. And I don't really regret going. And your program has been therapeutic, too, for me, so I'll let you go. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Sandy.

PAGE: Thank you for calling, Sandy. Let me say that, you know, this is my third class reunion and, you know, as much as I have gotten to know my classmates better and better over the years, I still get nervous before going to the class reunion. I had second thoughts about doing it, and I had a good excuse, because Hurricane Irene was blowing in as I was about to leave town. It would have been so easy to go on the phone and say, gee, I'm so sorry. You see the TV, you know, blah, blah, blah.

CONAN: I've got to get down to FEMA and advise on the...

PAGE: That's right.

CONAN: ...policies there.

PAGE: But you know what? I flew out of Baltimore with Hurricane Irene coming in on the horizon just to get to that reunion. So, folks - and I want to tell you it was worth it. I'm really delighted that I did.

CONAN: Here's this from Cindy(ph) in Jacksonville: Did you know I had a huge crush on you?

PAGE: Yes, that happened to me.

CONAN: Did it?

PAGE: That was a - yeah, yeah. I had a classmate...

CONAN: Those two arm-punchers.

PAGE: Yeah, yeah, those two arm-punchers, you know, and, in fact, one of them went into quite a story about it. She, you know, talked to her parents about it, kind of thing, you know, what should they do? And her parents, you know, it sounds like they gave her great counseling on how to deal with this, because, you know, it wasn't proper for a girl to approach a guy and blah, blah, blah. But, you know, I never knew it. She was just a friend far as I knew, just a fellow classmate back then. And it's amazing other people now have told me stories that they've had very similar, guys and gals.

CONAN: But Cindy continues in her email: that started the destruction of a couple of marriages...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: ...after our 10-year reunion. I shouldn't laugh.

PAGE: OK.

CONAN: I'm afraid some of my classmates weren't quite mature yet. The 20th was so much better.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAGE: Well, you know, this is something that's emerged in recent years, these Facebook reunions, you know, that the - in this Internet age now, folks are able to, what, reunite more easily now over the years. And whether it's at the class reunion itself or over Facebook, emails or whatever, rekindle old romances or romances that never quite got a chance to kindle before. And the results can be as mixed as any other romantic relationship, I'll put it that way.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Let's go next to Shannon, Shannon with us from San Francisco.

SHANNON: Hi. I got asked routinely at my 15-year reunion this summer, well, why don't you have kids? Why aren't you married?

PAGE: Oh, yeah.

SHANNON: I definitely got "why don't you have kids?" most often.

CONAN: And what did you reply?

SHANNON: You know, I'm - career came first and I've just been so busy. I haven't had a chance to get around to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: How about, none of your business?

PAGE: Right.

SHANNON: That would work, too, probably.

PAGE: Absolutely. I'm a late bloomer, you know. I didn't become a dad until I was 42, and I went through that a lot over the years, but I think it's worse for women. I think people really look upon you as suspect if you haven't pursued parenthood. And, frankly, by the way, I'm glad I did wait, because however much patience I needed to have in life...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAGE: ...I needed it - was called into play in, you know, in the act of being a father.

CONAN: Shannon, thanks very much.

SHANNON: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's - this is from Ed in Oakland: Wow, you're still alive.

PAGE: There you go...

CONAN: And finally...

PAGE: ...which, by the way, our first class reunion, we accidentally announced one of our classmates as deceased who was not deceased.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAGE: And it turned out he was a fireman in Cleveland, bless his heart.

CONAN: And we'll end with this from Grace in Valley Falls, Kansas. On Saturday, I'm going to my first high school reunion, the 40th. I was so shy back then. Even though I now I have a PhD, a 30-year-old marriage and a successful child, part of my mind is still trying to revert back to the shy high schooler. Thanks for having this show today and giving me courage.

Clarence, thanks for the courage of writing the column. We appreciate it.

PAGE: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Clarence Page's columns are syndicated by the Chicago Tribune. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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